My campus planning course explores the future of campuses and prepares emerging professionals for these practice settings.
For the first half of the semester I experimented with making the room bigger – dissolving the walls that bound the traditional classroom. On March 3, 2015, for example, our session on the future of the campus included more than 40 students and guests in time zones from Western Europe to British Columbia. The synchronous discussion engaged students with the perspectives of academics and professional campus planners.
Most students were in the classroom/studio on the Georgia Tech campus. Others were elsewhere in Georgia or Minnesota. We usually had at least one guest speaker in the classroom and one via web conference. For seven sessions, we also had dozens of other guests as I experimented with the ability to scale up and export the course to a broader audience. [My observations on teaching this way are provided at the end of this post.]
Retaining Synchronicity – Before ubiquitous Wi-Fi, almost all higher education was place bound and inherently synchronous. As e-learning options have proliferated and evolved, the boundaries of campus, clock and calendar seem less relevant. These boundaries are becoming a matter of choice and tradition rather than required assumptions.
Most digital forms of higher education eliminate the need to share time as well as space. Such courses are neither spatially nor temporally synchronized. Splitting students in space and time allows much larger numbers of students. There is usually no aspect of synchronous, shared experience – a feature of education that has been an unstated assumption.
Some would say there is a loss of authenticity. As the sites and forms of education have become asynchronous, the frisson of now is lost. The effect of shared experience in education is not well documented, but I believe it can be seen in hybrid courses. These blend asynchronous (digital) and synchronous (face-to-face) components to produce better learning outcomes than purely asynchronous models.
Fourth and Fifth Walls – In theater the invisible separation between stage and audience is known as the fourth wall. In this semester’s class we didn’t worry about that because there was no fourth wall. Little distinction was made between students, speakers and other guests. But we all honored the fifth wall. We synchronized our watches for what was known as “showtime.”
Dissolving the fifth wall of shared experience leaves questions of authenticity. Can I dismiss my contribution to be in the moment, to be present in the exploration of ideas with my students? Is this vanity? Is it appropriate to count on one’s serendipitous ability to share an insight or profound comment that may have value in the life of my students? Alternatively, is there lasting value in my editorial judgment and blended conceptual structure; choosing what information to make available, in what form and sequence?
Becoming Asynchronous – I will be working on these questions and believe the answers describe the future of the campus. They lie in the value of shared experience, rather than knowledge acquisition. They involve real time face-to-face conversation. They include argument and judgment and result in insight and conclusion. And ambiguity.
I will be experimenting with the delivery of this course without synchronizing watches, without students and guests always sharing time and place. I expect the resulting format to be “synchronish,” becoming synchronous and place-bound only when necessary to produce measurably better educational value. Except for those moments, those transient episodes, walls will dissolve and there will be no watches.
Observations on teaching via web conferencing Planning and Design of the University 2015
- Wider student access to a broad range of experts without the time and expense of transportation.
- A richer ability to discuss issues and patterns rather than individual campus anecdotes.
- Stretching the limits of synchronous interaction by offering the course in multiple time zones, with participants in four or five.
- Locational flexibility for students.
- Learning curve for students and scheduling/preparation for instructor and guests.
- Web-conferencing is an immature technology, but improving rapidly.
- Bandwidth for individual remote participants limits their ability to use video.
- Even with the best connections, speakers’ videos are noticeably pixelated.
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